Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Ghost Wood

View of the dene from under the very large ash in the
farmer's field to the south of the property.



How old is the dene and what were its possible prior uses?
In order to discover, I have turned detective. The first bit was to do a brief survey of the trees in the dene – starting at the kissing gate to the footpath and moving upwards towards my section. Below the kissing gate is farm land, mostly run to sheep or occasionally cows. There are some remnants of trees by the stream but I decided it would not offer any real clues. The ash tree is huge there and must have stood the test of time, rough guess it has about 400 inch girth or so and at one point was heavily coppiced but hasn't been for a long time.
Banked earth by the kissing gate's dry stone wall
However, by the kissing gate, I can detect banked earth – in other words, as Rackham predicted there is a bank separating the woods from the arable field. There is also a stone wall which marks out the wooded area enclosing it to the west, including the footpath and seperating it from the arable field (and houses). Again Rackham suggested that this is entirely what one would expect with an older wood which may have been exploited at certain points.
So it would seem to be the ghost of an ancient wood which developed into a boundary or hedge. 
It was not profitable to farm down the dene, but I suspect the trees were exploited in some fashion and many show signs of coppicing which ceased many years ago. Most woods used to be exploited in some fashion, according to Rackham.
The kissing gate leading into the footpath.
On the house side of the dene are the remains of a hedge – the hawthorn, and several holly bushes. To see if my guess was accurate,  I turned to the 1862  OS Map of Haydon Bridge: https://maps.nls.uk/view/102346473  In common with older OS every feature is shown and this is before the house was built in 1908 so it gives some indication of land use.  The dene is clearly marked as a wood and there is clearly a footpath marked through it.  
Looking at the deeds, the house side of the dene belonged to Broom Hill farm at this time and was used as farm land ( I presume livestock). The land to the east and west was owned by the Greenwich Hospital. As an aside, this means it was the Earls of Derwentwater land which was sequestered after the failed Jacobite Rebellion. The Earl of Derwentwater supported Bonnie Prince Charlie and became the last noble to be executed for treason by the crown.  I have no idea when Broom Hill farm became separate from the Earls of Derwentwater land. However it was long enough ago for a footpath to develop and to demarcated by a stone wall on one side.
The name of the house to the south of us which was built in 1902 is Hedgeley and that probably indicates that the dene and its trees were indeed used as a hedge. the suffix -ley normally means a glade within a wood in Anglo Saxon. Going from the OS map, I assume it was named when built and the owners were creating a glade within the hedge. The Dene, the name of my house is self-explanatory and again features the land.
The trees are mixed – Scot’s pine, sycamore, oak, ash, hazel, willow, holly and lime. The Scots pine was probably plant/wind blown sometime in the Victorian era. Sycamore again is mostly likely 18th century or later. The lime is interesting as there appears to be three types – small leafed (pry) in the oldest part of the wood on the footpath. Pry is nearly always an indicator of an ancient wood. There is also a medium sized leaf lime (assuming common lime) – this is within Hedgeley boundaries. And there is the large leaf limes in my section. As there used to be an outcrop of limestone (assume there still is), it could explain the presence of the trees. Alternatively persons unknown planted them awhile ago.
Footpath 
Near to the limes in my part of the dene, in early spring there are white wood anemones. White wood anemones notoriously only grow in ancient woods. They grow through underground runners and advance very slowly. They also do not like being transplanted.  It is only a tiny patch but it is clinging on.  I have no idea if Hedgeley has white wood anemones or not.  However there are hedge plants such as stitchwort and green alknet. 
We also have wild garlic growing in profusion – wild garlic however can be transplanted. It is certainly though a plant which has gone wild in the garden.
Some of our flowers only appeared after we made sure light was getting into the dene – including the bluebells and the stitchwort. This accords with Rackman’s assertion that regular coppicing allowed certain species to colonise. Hedgeley with its closed canopy has slightly different flora. The footpath is much more open and has a mix of species. The sheer mix of flora through out the dene (I walked up the footpath, starting near the farm (no livestock in the field) seems to indicate a longevity.
While I have nettles (sign of human disturbance), Hedgeley's dene and the footpath are remarkably clear of nettles. According to Rackham, true wildwood doesn’t have nettles.
Further up beyond us is farmland where a disused dam resides. It occasionally gets blocked with the odd sheep carcass. The earthworks are huge though and it used to power the gin-gan of Peel Well Farm. The stream probably always has been here, and they simply blocked it as it was the best way to provide power. The stream also serves as run off from various farms (we have had environmental incidents – most recently in April – all I can do is report to the Environment Agency with photos).
It is also clear that my portion of the dene has been a garden for some years, probably over a hundred years (the house was built in 1908). The nettles give it away and there are remains of paths and retaining walls. The more formal part of the garden will have been farmland before the house was built.  I have no real idea of how the Victorian plum tree is (around a hundred years?) but I suspect the back lawn/orchard with wildflowers was at one point a productive orchard. It was also probably a vegetable patch. We have a much smaller veg patch which is now fenced to keep out the hens and ducks.
Where next?
 I need to find out about the outcrop of limestone and why it was considered to be of local geological interest. It was in the late 1990’s that the geologist decided that it couldn’t be seen. He seemed to think this would be better for us. I assumed at the time, it would mean that it could not be exploited. But I suspect I need to do more detective work here but I am starting to get an idea of how the dene can be managed – get rid of/weaken invasive non-natives (ie ground elder) to allow the native wild flora to flourish. The sticks do need to be left in situ as much as possible.
The robin on the footpath.
I also need to put the measuring tape around some of the larger trees as that might help indicate when the wood really developed. My daughter says that I mustn’t put a tape around large ash which is in the field as it isn’t strictly on the footpath. (At 26, she still gets embarrassed by her mother). It is a very large tree. However, I think I can find out a lot through measuring the beech and large leaf lime which are in my portion.  It is merely to discover if the trees were here before the house.  Given what I know about the wood and the surrounding area, it makes no sense for anyone to create an ornamental wood in the dene. There just were no major country houses in the area. The nearest was Langley Castle and that was a ruin during the period of major parkland creation and again it is too far away for that sort of activity to make any sense.
But I have having fun doing the detective work and thinking about the what used to be here and therefore what do the organisms in the soil (the roots if you will pardon the pun of the ecosystem) want to support?
On my walk up the dene, I noticed a robin (hopping in front of me as if to make sure I had filled in all the forms correctly)  as well as specked wood butterflies. It is the stopping and looking which has me noticing these things and that has to be a good thing.




Saturday, June 08, 2019

The Liberate Lawn --Wilding at the Dene




Start of liberation June 2018
note solar powered dryer



Lawn 2017, complete with buckets
where I was trying and failing to capture moles
I have at long last found the term to describe the current state of what was the back lawn – a liberated lawn (i.e. it has been freed from the tyranny of mowing). Eventually it will become a wildflower orchard but for right now it is a liberated lawn.
The Victoria plum has been in for a very long time and has the reputation of producing the most plums in the neighbourhood. Because it is right by the road, I know it has been scrumped over the years. The fig tree which is also by the wall has been in for about 20 years and we do get ripe figs (much to my surprise).
Liberated lawn April 2019
no mole hills
The apple trees have been in for 10 years and were planted in honour of Penny and Tuppence, two of our cats who died. The pear tree has been in for 3 years. It takes time to grow trees. We do get a decent crop of apples.
Liberated lawn May 2019
note no mole hills
Prior to this, the lawn was used as a play space. Previous owners had used it as a vegetable patch (we created a smaller patch by the green house) and before this, it was used as farm land (presume to run sheep or cattle). We had to relay the turf in about 2000 and then had to completely reseed in about 2016 as between the moles and poultry, it was looking worse for the wear. Last year, I gave up and decided to begin this project of letting it grow and seeing what comes.
I have put packets of wildflower seeds on the lawn, but the hens and ducks are excellent at finding the seed or deciding the bare patch is good for a dust bath. As there is little point in excluding them, I have tried plugs with some success and just letting the plants come.  My husband remains dubious that we are creating anything but a mess. He is being allowed to cut both front lawns.
First foxgloves of 2019
Thus far, the ducks and hens appear to be enjoying it more – it is now their favourite spot for hauling out, particularly in the late afternoon. The birds in general like the lawn better and visit far more often. As I write this about 15 blackbirds are feeding. House sparrows are flitting about and I have just spotted a dunnock. This could be because the poultry food is on the ground and there is a supply of water. Plus there are perches available. Jackdaws visit but crows are more wary, partly because Hugo the Buff Orpington cockerel objects to them and chases them away. He is often seen on parade on the lawn at the moment.
The lawn is a gathering place for the various groupings of ducks and there are various rituals of bowing and head bobbing which go on when they enter. There are also the inevitable fights and skirmishes between the drakes but in general they seem to get along.
 The foxgloves have colonised parts by the fence where we used to strim. I thought we would get some mulleins but the ducks took a liking to the leaves…One plant remains. The verbena bonariensis which would never self-seed has set itself well in the lawn. The ducks do not seem interested in eating that or the foxgloves.
June 2019 ducks enjoying the rain
grass there, but no real wildflowers, foxgloves just flowering
Interestingly, we are not nearly as bothered by moles. I am sure the lawn is networked with mole tunnels but lately we are not seeing the hills or it appears it is just a little one.  As I am very bad at trapping them, it is a relief. I do realise the moles were in part a response to the fertility of the soil. I have no real idea how they discovered us (we went for years before the first one appeared – always on the back lawn as well) but they came and built their tunnels. Having conceded they won, they retreated. The irony is not lost on me.
So I shall be updating on the state of liberation but thus far, it is going all right. I do think given its previous use, ensuring that this becomes a wildflower strewn orchard is the right approach. It is very much a work in progress.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Tips for re-creating landscapes in historical romance


Currently I am doing the proofs for A Deal with Her Rebel Viking (out December 2019) and reading it (as well as all the other reading about re-wilding) has reminded  me that I do take very seriously trying to know what the landscape looked like in the 9th century as well as what the *normal* would be for the characters. The baseline has shifted so much.  What is normal was not normal then. And the countryside was changing even in their lifetime.  
In my novel, I have tried to give a sense of the meadows, the forest and the fact that the war with the Vikings (and others) meant that the underwood was abandoned to a certain extent. My eldest knew Oliver Rackman when he was a grad student at Corpus  and introduced my youngest to his books. Because of my interest in history, I was delighted to discover his rural landscape history. He discusses what the land looked like in the early middle ages and explains  about the importance of underwood, particularly at time when there were no saw mills.   I particularly like his Trees & Woodland in the British Landscape – the Complete History of the Britain’s Tress, Woods & Hedgerows.  It has really given me insight into what was going on. And now, I am using some of that knowledge in attempting to figure out when the dene’s wooded area dates from.
I first really became aware of the shifting baseline problem when I reading about lighting in the 19th century. We take the brilliance of our lighting for granted, but to someone living back in the 9th century, their eyes were adjusted to much less light. In many ways, the Romans were probably used to more light as they  used oil lamps than the Anglo Saxons. Romans also had under-floor heating and piped water. If you look at places like Birdoswald, you can see how buildings were adapted to other purposes as the technology became lost.

It is when you realise how much was lost and how they developed stories to explain various unexplained features of the landscape. Hidden Histories –A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape by Mary-Ann Ochota is also good for this type of thing. My dear friend Kate Hardy who knows I am nerdy about such things gave me this when I became a British citizen and it is truly a fascinating book on many levels. 
With writing in a historical some of the world building involves recreating their normal. It is about thinking what they would see and notice. Think about the wildlife, and the flora. What did they take for granted? How did they use the woods? What was the countryside like  pre-enclosure or pre-highland clearance? We may have lost much but they had not. They experienced a different sort of Britain and I think re-creating this can help to show why we need things like beavers, wild boar and perhaps(whispering here as it is very controversial) lynx or wolves back.

Monday, June 03, 2019

#30DaysWild

Red-tail Queen bumblebee on garlic chives



First foxgloves
On twitter, I am participating in the #30DaysWild scheme which is being run by the Wildlife Trusts in the UK. The main thrust of the programme is to get people to do different things with nature for 30 days.  30 Random Acts of Wildness. You can find me on twitter at @MichelleLStyles in case you want to see what I am up to.
 It can be as simple as stopping to listen to birdsong, watching a bumblebee or enjoying a wildflower. It can also be things like picking up litter or writing to your MP about the problem climate emergency we are facing. Or even signing a petition.
The website has 101 different ideas of things to do. If you sign up, you can download their pack or if they send it to you, you get a pack of wildflower seeds to plant.
View of the dene from the road
Because I am attempting to be more mindful of the eco-system I inhabit and to ensure that the garden is a haven for nature, I think this is a great scheme. It has already made me aware of the little things.
And your 30 days do not have to be June 2019, they can be any 30 days.  Just enjoy nature.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Counting some of my successes -- Great tit fledglings




Where I spotted the Great tit fledgling hunting for food.
Because when you are ecosystem gardening, your successes are not just measured in the number of flowers in bloom or that you have managed to get a lot of colour in your garden, but  they are measured in the diversity of wildlife who shared your garden. It is a slight change of mindset and a having to alter my camera lens slightly.
The Great Tits have fledged. This is  excellent news. The young are bobbing about in the undergrowth just below the nest box on the deneside. They will hopefully survive and disperse into the wider world.
The back lawn/orchard/meadow
where the blackbirds, sparrows and songthrushes like to
forage. Ducks and chickens on it
This is why at this time it is so important that there is food. Food in the Great tit fledgling’s case means insects rather than snacking at a bird table. Insects are most likely to appear on native plants, particularly those we gardeners often dismiss as weeds. The dock leaf, for example, is an important food source for a particular type of moth (one which has declined by over 70% and is one of the key British eco-species). The caterpillars are the favourite prey of many birds including Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers (which I’d love to see in the garden). So it is a case of thinking dock equals moths equals bird species. So the dock plants can mainly remain. I have noticed that something (mostly a caterpillar) has been eating various dock leaves on the lower walkway (normally strimmed but I am leaving this year as all we need is a path through) so I shall count this as a success – more food for the fledglings (and obviously hopefully some moths as well)
The parent was also hunt invertebrates in the stream for the youngster. Kate the very bossy duck objected and gave it a peck at which point it flew off. She ruffled her feathers and settled to hunting along the margins. The Great Tit did rapidly find more food for its youngster and so all were happy.
Nest box the tree bumblebees are using
I also spotted juvenile starlings and song thrushes on the back lawn. It isn’t really a lawn anymore though – orchard? Meadow? I am not sure what to call it. Both are red list birds along with house sparrows who also successfully bred in the garden. The dunnock remains amber listed (not as endangered) but also bred in the garden. A juvenile song thrush flew up onto the fence post and peered into the kitchen window. The picket fencing around the back lawn is so that we could (once upon a time) keep the poultry off the lawn. The vegetable patch also has a picket fence around it.  We stopped trying to keep the poultry off in about 2012 when we had a real fox problem. It is better for them to be gathering close to the house. We also put the ducks away at dusk as this helps deter fox problems.
Tree bumblebees have decided to colonise the garden. These are the only bumblebees who nest in bird boxes and one of our tit boxes has a nest. They nest in disused nests and only use it for about 3 -4 months. They are generally docile. Basically you don’t want to be continually walking in their flight path but mainly they will not seek out confrontation. They are a recent settler from Spain and appear to be taking a vacant niche and therefore are to be welcomed. After they leave, I will clean out the tit box and hope for a repeat of something next year.
So I can already see successes and hope to build on these.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Learning to Embrace my Inner Nettle-Lover

The verge outside, complete with nettle patch

Nettles have been the bane of my gardening life. The dene has rafts of them. The verge outside my house which I haven’t mowed since about 1997 but have strimmed is currently sporting a good collection. Nettles can swamp out other plants and well they are nettles. I have generally opted for pulling them. However as I am trying to recover from my Ecological Tidiness Disorder, I thought I ought to figure out what was a nettle good for.
Quite a lot actually.
Nettles support 40 different types of pollinators. They are particularly important for butterflies – the extravagant ones like Red Admirals and Peacocks, the ones I have buddleia so that they can feed in the late autumn. However, it should have been obvious to me – you can’t have butterflies if you starve their larvae. And these feed on nettles. In fact, a good sunny nettle patch is so important to a Peacock male in enticing a female that he has been known to drive off birds.
The reason why nettles host so many different types of insects is that most giant herbivores will not eat them. Their stings mean that they offer safe havens for the insects at important stages during their lifecycle.
The habitat for nettles is decreasing as verges get mowed in the interests of 'safety', and fields get built over etc. However without them, we will not have Peacocks and Red Admirals. Just as without milk thistle in California, you don't get Monarch butterflies. 
 Nettles grow where there has been human disturbance. They can be used to indicate that a building once should there or that a wood was cultivated.
In short, my pulling out of nettles inadvertently has done more harm to the ecosystem than I had considered. I might be allergic to them but they are important for a healthy ecosystem. And I do worry that they sometimes crowd out other native plants. It had been one of my big schemes for this year – pull nettles early to see what  other wild plants grow.  For example, under the bridge, honesty (good for holly blue butterlies -- had one in my garden last week)  and Welsh poppies have flowered this year because I pulled the nettles early. But I really want to encourage pollinators so I shall be leaving the nettles alone. Or if I do pull them because I get tired of being stung, I will be pulling them after the caterpillar season has finished in July/August time.
It is going to take a change of mind set but it can be done. Nettles = butterflies has to be my new motto. And I do like seeing Peacocks fluttering about my garden in late summer. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

A new mindfulness -- Wilding at the Dene




Front border
A new mindfulness has crept into the way I garden. One thing I am very aware about is that I have been far too quick to tidy. I also have no idea in many ways what is actually there or indeed the potential of the garden.
Every time I go out, I am intensely aware of my limitations and how I have simply accepted things without really thinking about it. Or at least really pondering it and about what clues there are to its natural potential.
So I am starting to get together a list:
1.       Do a survey of the trees I can see in the dene and try to see if they yield any clues as to how it was used pre the 19th century. I know we have both mature small leaf and large leaf lime, for example. Most of the mature trees are multi-stemmed above a certain height – this makes me think coppice wood, rather than wildwood existing on the edge of a farm. We also have nettles, except for the area between the mature trees. The nettles are not that significant in the footpath area either.
2.       Do research into the geologically significant deposit of limestone which was supposed to be in the garden but which the county geologist could not immediately spot 20 years ago. He said this was a good thing but I now I am wondering – should I know more about it. I am pretty sure I know where the deposit is (ie in the stream bed – above the middle pool) but I don’t know. So I suspect I need to research the records.
3.       On this side of the dene, the hawthorn and the holly may point to a former hedge which served as a boundary between a field and the dene. The road bends in a specific sort of way and Peelwell (now Haydon View care home) is a very old farm. Our plot was not part of Peel Well but rather Broom Farm which was centered on where the high school currently stands.  Hedgley, the house next door, has the remanents of an orchard on their grounds but it is hard to say when that orchard came about. The original part of that house was built a few years before ours. We actually share drains. But I need to do more research.
Looking into the dene from the bridge (hawthorn on left)
4.       Research what sort of plants would naturally inhabit such a habitat and see what they expect. In a former coppiced wood, the wildflowers have developed to respond to varying degrees of shade. They expect renewal.
5.       Retrieve the various guides we possess on wildflowers, bees, butterflies and moths. Also refresh my bird id ability rather than simply relying on my husband’s (which is beyond excellent).  This is partly prompted by the discovery of a bumblebee nest in a bird box. I am not entirely sure which bumblebee it is. I did see the queen go in (dark orangey red stripe, white tail) but I need to figure which bee. I am however pleased the box is being used.
Where the bumblebees are nesting.
6.       Figure out what is invasive and non-native (ground elder unfortunately). And also figure out what giant herbivores would have eaten. Do I want sycamore saplings for example. Sycamore is a 17th century addition to England. What happens when brambles and nettles are blocking other potentially more interesting wildflowers?
All this will take time. In the mean time, I am trying to take a step back, and not tidy like there is going to be an open day.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Introducing the site -- Wilding at the Dene


Basically if I am going to talk about the dene, you will need to know about the site. We are on a bend in the road and the wooded area at the top of the picture is us. The label is for the care home, but on the wrong house as that is a newer house which was built in their orchard. 
 The house was built in 1908 and has had 5 or so owners. Prior to that, it was part of a farm. Someone disappeared in the Australian outback and had to be declared dead before it was broken up in the late 19th century but that is about as exciting as the history gets.  I have no idea how the mysterious got that strip of land but would like to think it had something to do with the Earls of Derwentwater as it is as far as I can remember the Greenwich Catholic trust. 
Standing near the willows,
 on the footpath side of the dene


 I am pretty sure the dene part was ancient woodland as there are wild garlic, and white anemones in the spring.  
Various strips of land were added, particularly in the early years. I suspect they had to site the house differently and had to purchase more land. That part has the remains of being formal and to the front. The dene is to the side. And then in the 1950s, the bit over the bridge was added. This period was supposed to be a bit of heyday for the garden.
   In the 1960s, the property was sold to the Hedleys who had it until Mrs Hedley went into a home in the early 1990s. A couple bought it to do it up and then promptly decided to get a divorce. It rapidly went back on the market and we eventually purchased it for a decent price in 1996. I suspect most people thought something was really wrong with the house as lots of people had viewed it when Mrs Hedley sold it.  
Mrs Hedley was a keen gardener (president of the British desert cactus society in the 1960’s –  hence the greenhouse) but frail in her later years. For most of her tenure, the dene part was not  managed. In the end the garden became too much, even though she had a gardener whom I met when I first moved here. He said that she liked to think about the birds. The people before us were keen on trimming hedges and that is about all. When just before we moved, the greenhouse was destroyed by a car, the wife directed the builders to throw all glass down into the dene as it was bound to wash away and no one went there anyway. I spent a great deal of time hauling broken glass out that first winter so that the children would not get hurt.  
Looking at the middle pool
What all of this means for the garden is that when we took over, there were various plants from various eras. Gardening goes in fashions and some plants are more popular during certain eras. Know the plant and sometimes you can hazard a guess when they were planted. For example we have a profusion of snowdrops which I believe are Galanthus Samuel Arthnott – they were known from the 1900s but first exhibited in 1951 so I suspect the first plantings were done in the 1950s. There is also a gold dust plant and a few other popular 1950’s specimens in what we call the winter garden (we can see it in the winter) just over the bridge and so I suspect that part was planted up in the 1950s and then left when the Hedleys took over.
 When woodland is not managed, it closes down and reverts to deep shade which many garden birds actively avoid. So while she might have liked to think about the birds, there were very few birds here when we arrived. There were also very few perches for birds in the more formal part of the garden.  One of the first things we did was to get the tree surgeon in and get the trees trimmed and the scrub sorted. We also trimmed back the ivy and uncovered long neglected bushes.
We had so many bonfires that winter (getting rid of old fences in the main)  that when the barn further down the bank went up in smoke, our next neighbour phoned to see if we were busy burning again. I replied – In a gale? I ran to the window and saw flames further down the road.  My children were delighted to watch the firemen arrive and hook up the hoses. Alas the barn burnt to the ground and to this day remains a concrete shell.
Looking up towards the bridge at the hawthorn'
sweet chestnut behind
 on the house side of the dene
The stream is connected to an old farm pond which sometimes the farmer neglects. It used to run the gin-gan. One year, we had the firemen back out pumping the pond as  a sheep had died and blocked it. Had the Victorian earthworks gone, the entire village would have been threatened. The stream also serves as a storm overflow. Sometimes the farmers do discharges and this results in incidents.
But no pesticides have been used for years as far as I can figure.
 We uncovered paths and found bits of the garden that we had not quite realised existed that first winter. Sometimes it was obvious that certain things were once a specific garden but trees had grown far too big. 
The conifer by the greenhouse was a case in point but a huge focal point from the village. That is until 2013 when a storm hit and blew it into the greenhouse. The sweet chestnut now has room to grow.
There are loads of levels to this garden – it is in a small wooded valley and therefore pathways and parapets. Many of the walls have ivy growing up. And as I suffer from ecological tidiness disorder, I have a tendency to cut the ivy every so often so that it stays on the walls, doesn’t swamp plants and we can see the garden.  We do it in the winter so that the birds are not nesting, and it does return. However, I suspect this has to change and beating myself up over the past is not going to help matters.  There is a balance to be struck and I suspect I have gone too far on the side of human tidiness rather than benign neglect. It is going to have to be something I work on – not tidying things up too much. And I can’t beat myself up too much. It is just things are going to have to change but I had to physically stop myself pulling ivy out of the wall by the cars this morning.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Penny Drops -- Wilding the Dene


History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people but the appalling silence and indifference of the good. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and actions of the children of darkness but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.
--Martin Luther King Jr
I will number myself among the complacent about the environment. I like to think of myself as one of the Good – I keep bees, the last time the garden saw pesticide was probably 1996 just before we moved in, we have had a programme of making sure a good majority of the plants were  good for the bees since 2000 (starvation of colonies is real), and my hens and ducks have roamed free during the day since 1998. My various cats have been indoor cats since about the time Penny encountered a hen in 1998. We know we have foxes and so when Penny and Tuppence went, my husband suggested that we keep the next lot in. We recycle and try to avoid single use plastic and so on.  I can give loads of reasons why I thought I was doing enough including raising three children who were environmentally well (two of which work in the sector). I thought I could rest on my laurels so to speak. Other people maybe needed to change but me – I was good. After all I was doing my best and the less environmentally aware were the ones
The penny dropped last week.  
I read Rebirding by Benedict MacDonald and realised that I had become infected with the new normal. I simply had not noticed the decrease in the bird and insect population. He gives an example of a fig tree  where hornbills just to go to feed and the clearing teemed with life and sound but one day the tree was cut down and the hornbills no longer visited the area. They may have found food elsewhere (if they were lucky) or they may have starved. However, people going to that clearing after the fig were greeted by silence. They had no idea that hornbills ever fed there. Their normal was not hornbills in a fig tree but a silent clearing where one or two other birds flickered about.
And suddenly I understood that I had been part of the complacent and the appallingly silent. I have also suffered to greater or lesser extent from Ecological Tidiness Disorder in my quest to a garden which is pleasing to the eye as well as supporting my bees.
MacDonald gives some very sobering figures of the decline in birdlife in the British Isles and the crash in the insect population. It is easy to forget in a world where one puts out bird food for the birds that different species have different feeding requirements. And for some, if they can’t find the insects, they starve. Insects are dependant on certain types of plants. They have evolved. Not all plants will host insects equally. Insects have spent  thousands of years evolving to feed off specific plants. When those plants are not there, they can sometimes adapt but sometimes they starve. And when they die, the birds who feed on them, do not thrive, go elsewhere where there is more competition etc. Because of research into migration and the mind maps birds carry, we are learning that it is not as easy as once thought to increase populations. For example, there is no point in building the perfect habitat for a pine marten in Sussex and hoping that one will appear – their range doesn’t include Sussex. And in dealing with animals, you do have to think range. Britain is on the Western edge of the range for many birds.
While it is depressing, MacDonald gives hope and that hope comes from the concept of rewilding. In short, making sure the environment is not managed for just one species, but rather looked at as an ecosystem as a whole. It is about working with nature, instead of against it. However, I don’t think he is much of a gardener or completely understands some of the trouble. It is not just the people who have paved over everything, have decking, and use pesticides at every opportunity who need to change, but also the people who garden for wildlife who have to change as well. We, the complacent good, must alter our behaviour to ensure things actually change.
Ecosystem gardening is actually far harder than it sounds and is why it isn’t usually practiced.  In one sense it is simply an extension of Beth Chatto’s philosophy of the plant to suit location but in another, you do have to be aware of what insects the plant will host etc. And it is gardening more for the longer term.
My youngest son who is currently a Master research student at St Andrews and is in Cyprus studying fledgling behaviour of the Cyprian wheatear and who has not read the book is so pleased that the scales have dropped from my eyes about the seriousness of the problem. Although, he did think it amusing I got in a totally unintentional twitter spat with Monty Don when I asked if Gardener’s World could try to make native plants aspirational rather than highlighting things like tree ferns. My intentions were good, but my wording was misconstrued. My son found out about it when a fellow researcher in Cyprus asked him if his mother’s name was Michelle. I got a phone call.
 My son is an ornithologist rather than a plantsman and didn’t totally understand about  some of the ways in which the wildlife gardener  might have inadvertently assisted in the decline from sterile hybrids of native plants to the use of exotics which have evolved to support other ecosystems  to create sterile green deserts which look natural but are almost incapable of supporting any native fauna. He now does (sort of). This problem is also one environmental consultants in planning have been highlighting for years but one which has been overlooked by gardeners and gardener designers.
He suggested I read Wilding by Isabella Tree if I wanted to know more. It is an excellent book but had I read it first, it would not have had as big an impact as Rebirding as I would have thought – ah but I am one of the Good and her experience has nothing to do with me, really.  The calls to action are many and varied.
Wilding also made me feel better – much of what I am doing has been good. Actually better than good.  I can do with few more tweaks in my approach and losing of my ETD especially in pulling nettles and brambles (A sore point with my son. In his first year of uni, my son was once sent out to recover from a bad hangover and made to pull brambles while I dealt the state of his bed. He spent much of the time staring up at the sky as I had suspected he would) but on the whole the bones are there. I just need to look at the garden with different lenses.
 The other good part is because the next door neighbours operate a more than begin neglect policy on their part of the dene and the public footpath goes through a strip of land owned by a mysterious trust which has not been touched for decades really, the natural haven where I garden actually has far more areas and is bigger than I first thought.
 I have no intention of getting into any more spats or trying to provoke and see little point in trying to get the bad to change their ways (I leave that to others), instead I want to persuade and that is why I am going to devote part of this blog to writing about The Dene and my efforts at ecosystem gardening to create more of a haven for nature. I am going to detail the beginnings and what we have done, impart  how to garden with free roaming ducks and hens and still have a decent border and vegetable patch etc as well explaining about my efforts to be a better ecosystem gardener. One of my latest projects (forced by Hugh Buff-Orpington, our cockerel) has been to turn the old back lawn into an orchard under planted with wildflowers. In part because it can be so overgrown, I have hesitated to share but I think the time is right.
I hope this helps or inspires someone. There will still be bits about my own historical romance writing but I think this is a worthwhile project. So please bear with me as I give some insight into my attempts. I am going to make mistakes. I am a very flawed human being but my intentions are good. At the very least it will provide me with procrastination distraction from my latest wip which is at POS stage. 
If you are interested in getting involved in Rewilding Britain, do visit their website to find out more.


Thursday, May 16, 2019

Booksweeps Giveaway

I have a fun surprise today -- I am participating in  a Booksweeps giveaway. My SENT AS THE VIKING'S BRIDE is included in the  30 historical romances up for grabs plus an e-reader.  It runs from 15 May  - 24 May 2019 void where prohibited.
All the details are here: https://booksweeps.com/book-giveaway/historical-romance-bookbub-may-2019/

Friday, May 10, 2019

Why you should know your historian


My reading for today started with this fascinating New Stateman’s article on EH Carr.
EH Carr is considered by many to have written the first serious book on the subjectivity of history and how the historian’s past always colours their interpretation of the facts. His book What is History stemmed from at series of lectures he gave in 1961. His basic argument is that you must first study the historian, understand their agenda and social context and then read their work. He differed from 19th century historians who felt the historian could give an objective account of history.
The historical timeline with its dates and certainties stems from the 19th century. Von Ranke in the 1830s is the person to blame btw. And dates aren’t always accurate – Christianity in the UK does not start in 597 CE with St Augustine’s mission as was recently shown by the Prittlewell Prince, a high status Christian who was buried in Essex prior to this time. (There are other examples but the find is fairly amazing)
One of Carr’s great insights about 5th century is not that so much was lost but we viewed it through the lenses of a small group of men based in Athens who were of a certain social standing. And therefore the reader should always be aware of whose lenses you are viewing history through. 
The same can be said to be true in my opinion of  the Viking raid on Lindisfarne – the accepted view of the raid being a bolt from the blue comes from a political letter from a monk Alcuin to the court of Charlemagne. The letter is rarely put into context – Charlemagne operated a belligerent attitude towards pagans and was known to be negotiating the marriage of one of his daughters to a son of the King of Northumbria. There is evidence that the Vikings (or Northmen) were already trading in the general region. Was it a pre-emptive strike? Was it a market negotiation gone wrong (this had happened in Saxon territory a few years before with disastrous consequences for the Saxons)? Is Alcuin’s view of the incident coloured by his position that he came from Northumbria, was a monk and was writing trying to influence another decision?  We can’t tell the Viking’s perspective of what happened because they did not leave written records.
Knowing the bias and social context of every historian or primary source author is a useful exercise. It is why I always read the author’s biography first – even when I am just reading for pleasure.
Right back to writing about the Vikings and Picts  two sets of people who are normally always seen through the lenses of others.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Shooing the Crows of Doubt

One thing I have discovered in my years of writing is that there are days the critical voices caw at your mind until you can't think beyond the noise.
I have various strategies  including keeping a scrapbook of good reviews (because you do forget) but I saw this quote today. It was originally in the masculine and I am sure Teddy Roosevelt meant it to encompass all people but I found it more pertinent and forceful to change it to the feminine.
In case it helps someone else in the Arena of Life.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Why you should read Reese Ryan's Bourbon Brothers

Over the last year, it has been my pleasure to discover Reese Ryan and her Bourbon Brothers series. It started in a moment of solidarity -- both our books were featured on an ad Harlequin did and so I went looking -- first for her (as Harlequin has a habit of not telling its authors about such things) and then for the book as I spotted something about bourbon and distilleries on her website.
 As luck would have it, the wrong blurb was on Amazon.co.uk  and my heart sunk as I wanted to read about bourbon distilleries and not cowboys. At this point I believe I cemented my crazy lady status to Reese who had no idea about the mix up in blurbs and could not understand about why I was banging on about how writing about a bourbon distillery would be such a great concept but of course cowboys were fine as well. She assured me her books were about bourbon.
The ad which led to my discovery
of Reese Ryan
I read Savannah's Secrets and was blown away. It was just the right tonic for that particularly day. Then in October, I read the next in the series The Billionaire's Legacy and it was equally as good.
All I can say is read them and enjoy. Bourbon or your fave tipple makes a great accompaniment.
By this point, I considered Reese a friend and therefore had no compunction in strong arming her to get my hands on an arc of Engaging the Enemy, the third book and Parker's story. Happily she obliged, even though  I am convinced she still thinks me crazy (but in a nice sort of way). It went straight to the top of my reading pile and I was not disappointed.
 It is the best of the series so far.
 If you want to see a master author at work, read Engaging the Enemy, her handling of two potentially very difficult characters is amazing.  Her ability to communicate the emotional truth of her characters is incredible.
There are a number of scenes that I loved in the story but my favourite was when the two main characters had to hold hands and recite what they liked about each other. There was a brief visit from Savannah (Book 1) whom I had happened to like.
I cannot change my skin tone,  my DNA or my ancestry but reading allows me the privilege of walking in another's shoes and viewing the world through another's lenses.
 I am so pleased that Reese Ryan decided to share her world with readers. For me, she is one of the best series authors writing at the moment.
My one regret at the moment is that her other writing commitments means I will have to wait a little while for the next installment of the Bourbon Brothers. I can't wait to see what she does next. Reese kindly allowed me to fangirl and even send the recipe I had used last Christmas to make fruit cake laced with bourbon. I think a Christmas set Bourbon brothers would be excellent but it is up to Reese. I personally live in hope.

This is my review:
In her third installment of her highly-readable Bourbon Brothers series, Ryan has excelled herself. Her book more than delivers on the Desire promise of sensual glamour, heroes to fall in love with and strong capable heroines. The story and the characters will linger in your mind long after you finish the book. The story is stand-alone but for readers who started with earlier books, there is a welcome return to the Bourbon Brothers' world and a chance to catch up with characters. Savannah, the heroine of Savannah's Secrets, is in several key scenes in the early part of the book, for example.
In Parker Abbott, Ryan has taken a potentially difficult hero (he prefers data to interacting with people any day and his people skills are not the best to say the least) and created an alpha hero to really root for as he falls for his former childhood friend, Kayleigh  who now despises him and his family for the wrongs she thinks they did to her family. However, Kayleigh, a woman who has made sure she can find a way to exit every relationship, needs a handsome fake fiance who knows that the relationship has an end date and Parker fits the bill.
The growth of their emotional relationship had me turning the pages long after I should have been asleep and the ending brought a huge lump to my throat.
Ryan's writing is as ever as smooth and rich as a fine glass of bourbon.
My only regret at reading this so fast is that I now have to wait a long time for the next installment.
So what you are waiting for? Grab a glass of bourbon (or your favourite tipple) and treat yourself to a wonderful feel-good read.

You can buy the book here:
Reese is currently doing a giveaway:
Giveaway ($25 reader’s choice gift card): http://bit.ly/EngagingGiveaway
Her website is here:
Author Website: http://ReeseRyan.com
Personally I'd sign up for her newsletter as she does have exclusive excerpts etc. It is a great way to discover what is coming up next.
And I really enjoy her VIP readers group on Facebook -- it is a great place to discover new to me authors -- particularly Authors of Colour.


Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Historical Treasures feature.

Woo Hoo!
I am very excited. Sent as the Viking's Bride is one of the featured books this week in Collette Cameron's Historical Treasures. http://bit.ly/HighlandTreasures_1_8_19

Every week Collette features some of the best new releases and bargains in the historical romance genre. You can find more about her newsletter here: https://www.subscribepage.com/historical-treasures
It is a great way to uncover hidden gems.